Before 2014, Facebook’s motto was “move fast and break things.” Meanwhile, Amazon drilled the credo “speed matters” into employees. The mantra for Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and CEO until 2017, was “growth above all else.” The generation that has come of age under the long shadow of the 2007 financial crisis, understandably, is skeptical of the pursuit of endless growth in a financial context, but less critical of this phenomenon elsewhere. Big tech companies seem immune.
Having grown up alongside smartphones and social networks, even those of us most critical of capitalism often regard the star firms of Silicon Valley — and their focus on speed, growth and efficiency — with a degree of admiration. Jobs in venture capital or at tech product firms are rarely subject to the same degree of scrutiny as investment banking.
We often point to technology as the ultimate solution to complex problems, from improving public schools to halting climate change. Even those who are aware of Amazon’s labor practices and Facebook’s mostly unchecked monopoly power still use their platforms and products with a sheepish shrug.
Technology allows us to do more things better and faster, and gives us more control over the world around us. These are all, in the short run and in small doses, benefits. Yet failing to be critical about how speed and convenience are achieved, about the “efficiency paradigm” that drives consumers and companies, can lead to serious costs later on. Already, tech products and firms pose a risk by replacing jobs in the labor market; displacing other firms in various industries; and most importantly, damaging the basic human interactions necessary to sustain healthy relationships, communities and institutions. In the long run, these dynamics threaten to break down democracy and heighten inequality.
Although most people at Yale think quite critically about the world at large, rarely do we interrogate the innovation and efficiency that allows us to be the architects of our social circles and time. Even in this community, social media has deepened divides between people, whether through brazen critiques that stir mob mentality against those we do not know or by allowing us to seclude ourselves from those we disagree with. This desire to engage with others solely on our own terms has spilled over into real life. Rather than speaking with someone about a problem through in-person conversation, we’ve now mutated “subtweeting” and “unfollowing” into everyday behavior, often choosing to complain to others. When we do address problems, we prefer mediation by screens.
Notwithstanding Facebook’s advertising policy, which allows outright lies by political campaigns, an overly curated online environment creates its own false realities. The kind of behavior promoted by usage of such platforms in the first place implicitly replaces the real world with made-up ones, online interactions for offline ones. Instant messaging may be speedy, but it has slowed down the conversations necessary to build a multifaceted democratic community.
Meanwhile, tech-oriented values about having more — now — affect our consumption patterns and the day-to-day lives we lead. We do not need free two-day shipping; same-day grocery delivery; fast food ordering kiosks; instantaneous, cheap rides via apps; and a whole suite of other services offered by automation and tech monopolies. But we then accept all of these things as a part of life and expect them accordingly.
In this way, in the pursuit of comforts for a small portion of the population, we not only further segment our lives away from the rest of society by avoiding interactions with others — all of these services allow us to function alone — but also normalize the paradigm of endless growth and efficiency as long as it benefits us.
What that ignores is the other side of the coin: how tech firms succeed in providing these services through new iterations of unchecked market power, how Amazon delivery and other speed-centered operations often expand their platforms and provide their services through ruthless treatment of workers or the automation of their jobs. Most of us will likely not drive Ubers to supplement our income, or work breakneck shifts in warehouses for little pay and no benefits. In ignoring these effects through our consumption patterns, we are subtly condoning the widening asymmetry between the lives at opposite ends of the income spectrum, the hollowing-out of middle-class jobs, and the insidious process of “technicization” that splinters society.
This is not to say that technology, on a whole, should be dismissed. Of course, technology has also allowed people from disparate backgrounds to connect, and has been leveraged effectively for social good — oftentimes, in instances that seek to correct the deep wealth and power imbalances in the country. However, these situations where new technology facilitates the health of communities are rare. Often, technology designed for specific contexts is applied elsewhere with poor outcomes. For example, laptops can be helpful for improving learning in some schools. But for districts with a high proportion of low-income students, introducing laptops has far less impact than providing good teachers, counselors and social workers.
Instead, as technology increasingly substitutes for human relationships and functions, I hope we think critically about when and where we draw the line on efficiency in favor of equity, about how and why we need different platforms and products in different parts of our lives. Reshaping our actions now may cause relative discomfort in the short term — extra time waiting in line, awkward in-person confrontations, small disruptions to our day. We might, however, find these technical difficulties create easier lives for all of us in the future.
LIANA WANG is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs monthly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .